Norm Bangerter and a Jet Ski – A Remembrance

When a former political leader passes away, it is common for media types to have personal remembrances of the senator, governor or mayor.

And so it is now with former GOP Gov. Norm Bangerter, who, unfortunately, passed away this week from a stroke at age 82.

I met Bangerter; I guess, in 1980, when I first covered the Utah Legislature for the Deseret News and Bangerter was the House majority leader.

He became Speaker in 1981 and held that post until he was elected governor in 1984.

On the political side, he will be remembered for the tough, three-way race he barely won in 1988.

You see, Norm Bangerter was a man who liked to solve problems. And after the Utah economy went in the tank early in his first term, Bangerter decided to take on the problem of struggling schools head on – like he took on all the problems in his life.

He suggested to the 1987 Legislature, run by Republicans, sweeping tax reforms along with a significant tax hike for schools.

Rod Decker, the long-time KUTV TV political reporter, did some math and announced that it was the largest tax increase in the state’s history – a headline that struck Bangerter hard.

A tax revolt sprung up, fueled by archconservative Republicans and a few talk radio hosts.

The popular former Salt Lake Mayor Ted Wilson announced on the Democratic side. And Merrill Cook jumped from the Republican Party to say he’d run for governor as an independent.

Politically, things were looking bad for Bangerter.

At one time, in Dan Jones polls for the News, Wilson had something like a 25-point lead – unheard of in recent Utah politics.

Today it’s hard to imagine a Republican incumbent governor so far down in the polls to a Democrat.

Political experts and columnists ran to write Bangerter’s political obituary.

But while Bangerter was in real political trouble, just as it got so dark, things started to turn.

First, Jon Huntsman Sr., who had announced he would run against Bangerter for the GOP nomination, got out of the race and endorsed Bangerter.

And the governor seemed to get his second wind, really hit his stride campaigning.

I recall this specific incident that caused me to write a column about how Bangerter should not be considered finished:

Each summer a group of legislative friends and lobbyists would go up to Senate President Arnold Christensen’s Bear Lake cabin – to enjoy a day of barbeque and fun on the water.

Jet skis were new, and all the rage. And lobbyists Cap and Sue Ferry had a video camera – also a new toy.

The Ferrys shot more than two hours of the day and made VHS copies for attendees. Somehow a copy came to me, which I watched for the fun of it.

But what it showed me was something that struck home – here was Bangerter trying to get up on a jet ski as a storm came in over the lake and the ski and Bangerter drifted further down the shore.

Again and again Bangerter would try to get up on the ski, as it tipped over or ran away from him.

There was no reason for Bangerter to keep up this effort – the water was choppy, likely still cold, the wind was whipping around and the folks on the beach were having a good time joking and enjoying themselves.

But Bangerter was not going to let that jet ski beat him.

The camera panned away from him, then returned to see the governor’s head bobbing in the waves as he tried again and again to get up on that jet ski.

And after watching 15 or 20 minutes of this, I finally saw Bangerter pull himself up on the ski as he accelerated, and he rode it off over the waves – was that a smile or a grimace on his face?  Probably both.

I thought to myself – Wilson and Cook are in trouble.

This guy will never give up on the campaign or himself.

Bangerter won re-election in 1988 40 percent to Wilson’s 38 percent, with Cook trailing behind.

Bangerter really was an amazing man and politician.

And Utah was lucky to have him in those trying times.